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Hey Veterans: Take Two Bible Verses and Call Me in the Morning

When I began working for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) over four years ago, one of the first stories I heard was that of a disabled veteran named Akiva David Miller. This veteran was not only being subjected to relentless Christian proselytizing at a V.A. hospital, but had actually been denied medical treatment -- all because he's a Jew. I could barely believe what I was hearing. This was happening in America? WTF?

Unfortunately, Akiva's story is only one of many that I've now heard. For our atheist and other non-Christian veterans who seek out treatment from the V.A. -- for both medical and mental health issues such as PTSD -- that treatment frequently includes a good dose of "all you need to do is accept Jesus as your savior." Akiva Miller didn't need to find Jesus; he needed medical treatment and pain medication.

Akiva, who is now the Veterans Coordinator at MRFF, spends countless hours in this volunteer position helping other veterans who, like himself, have faced harassment, discrimination, and worse at the hands of the V.A. medical system because of their religious beliefs. Please take a few minutes to read his Veterans Day message.

Veterans Day is always a good time for us to take a few moments to reflect on the way we treat our veterans. Keeping in mind that our veterans have sacrificed years of their life to do a dangerous job too few are willing to do, many have laid their lives on the line, suffered trauma, injury and witnessed the wounding and deaths of their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. Those who are fortunate enough to survive armed conflicts across the globe are left to live out their lives with memories of past traumas. In addition to the obvious physical wounds, a vast number of our service members are left to live with PTSD, depression and other psychological wounds that may never disappear.

I am reminded of my beloved grandfather who came home from WWII wounded in ways that few could fathom. My parents have a photograph of his company – my grandfather was one of only two men from that company who survived the war. He survived days behind enemy lines in a freezing blizzard during the Battle of the Bulge. He fought across Germany in the last days of the war, fighting street to street against an enemy that included Hitler youth – having to combat what were essentially children was something from which he never recovered. And in the end, he helped liberate a death camp, and he brought back photographs to prove it. After the war he was never the same.

I grew up during the Vietnam conflict and like many of you I remember just how poorly veterans from that war were treated when they came home; for far too many years our own government fought to deny Vietnam veterans disability benefits for PTSD and lingering health problems related to exposure to Agent Orange. More recently we have witnessed and continue to witness the struggles of Gulf War veterans who continue to suffer terribly with Gulf War Syndrome; they have had to fight and continue to fight to have their disabilities recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In recent years we have done better at reaching out and assisting our veterans. Civilians have done and continue to do much to assist the reintegration of veterans into society, to lend a helping hand to our wounded warriors and to find areas where our veterans tend to fall through the cracks and seek to fill the void. The Department of Veterans Affairs has come a long way too in assisting our veterans; however, they continue to struggle with a terrible lack of funding, particularly funding to meet the mental health needs of our veterans. Funding for services for our wounded warriors hasn’t come close to keeping up with the vast amount of money our nation spends on waging war itself. Further, the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to have systemic challenges that seriously impact the delivery of real care to our veterans.

While the V.A. disability system often seems to be rigged to either deny or severely limit benefits to veterans, thus tragically limiting access to needed medical care for far too many veterans, there are other vexing issues that plague the V.A. The issue I want to discuss today is the prevailing presence of religious predation, discrimination and marginalization throughout our V.A. healthcare system.

As the Veterans Coordinator for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation I am regularly contacted by veterans across the United States who are experiencing a variety of challenges with their local V.A. healthcare system related to religion. These issues range from the illicit and permanent posting of religious symbols in common areas throughout V.A. facilities in violation of Dept. of V.A. policy to predatory proselytizing and/or discrimination by V.A. medical and mental health staff and suicide prevention / crisis phone lines manned by staff who think it’s acceptable to tell despondent and suicidal veterans that unless they accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior they’re going to hell.

Often V.A. Medical Centers are attached to local teaching hospitals, and in some cases these teaching hospitals are private, faith-based facilities. The religious practices and policies of these faith-based facilities often leak over into the V.A. facilities. An example of this challenge is the V.A. Medical Center in Loma Linda, California which is attached to and serviced by Loma Linda University Hospital, which is a Seventh Day Adventist facility. I have received numerous complaints from veterans who access care at the Loma Linda facility, veterans who’ve had to deal with burdensome policies and procedures related to palliative pain care due to the Seventh Day Adventists’ aversion to prescribing and dispensing narcotic pain medication. Veterans who access care at this facility are also regularly subjected to unwanted and aggressive proselytizing by Seventh Day Adventist staff, even to the extent of staff following veterans out into the parking lot to yell at them for rejecting their attempts at proselytizing. Over time the number of complaints has grown so large that the hospital administration now refuses to take phone calls from outside the hospital (even calls from patients and/or their advocates) and states all complaints must be presented in writing in order to be considered. This is a typical response to complaints within the V.A. system – rather than address the problems, administration is inclined to just make it more difficult for veterans to complain about problems.

In the interest of full disclosure I need to tell you that I’m a disabled veteran. I first heard of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation a few years back when I was struggling with religious predation and discrimination at the Iowa City V.A. Medical Center. During two separate hospitalizations, while sedated and wired to a heart monitor, in violation of my expressed wishes and written directive, I was visited by an Assembly of God chaplain who stood over my bed and preached to me for about twenty minutes (each time) and told me that if I didn’t accept Jesus as my personal savior I was going to hell. My medical records show that I am Jewish, if my kippah and beard weren’t evidence enough; however, that didn’t matter to the staff who called the chaplain, or the chaplain. Nor did it matter to them that I protested the chaplain’s presence as vigorously as I was capable of considering my sedation, pointing out the obvious, that I am Jewish; still, the Chaplain remained unmoved, telling me that Jesus is the Messiah of the Jews as well. In addition to these clear violations of my rights, I frequently endured questions from hospital staff that went something like this: “You’re a Jew, aren’t you? I hear you don’t believe in Jesus; why not?” These, of course, were just a few of the many challenges I faced as a Jewish American veteran at the Iowa City V.A. Medical Center. After a time I grew fed up and, accompanied by my Rabbi, met with a representative from the Chaplains office and Patient Advocates office to lodge a complaint. The meeting did not go well; I was told it was all my fault because I repeatedly failed to protest forcefully enough. Then, the very next day, during a follow-up appointment with my primary care physician (following an earlier emergency room visit where I learned that I was suffering with seven kidney stones) I was informed that the hospital was discontinuing my medical care. When I asked my physician what I was supposed to do about my kidney stones, he responded by saying, “You’re a religious Jew; why don’t you try prayer or meditation.”

Cut off from medical care, I was in bad shape, in the worst pain of my life. That was when a friend told me about Mikey Weinstein and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. I immediately contacted Mikey and he went to work, securing medical care for me at another V.A. facility and putting public pressure on the V.A. As a result of the MRFF’s intervention, the Department of Veterans Affairs dispatched a medical ethicist to investigate my claims. In the end my claims were not only substantiated, but an Anti-Semitic slur in my medical chart was uncovered and ordered removed. Following this incident the Iowa City V.A. was pushed to make some long overdue changes to come into compliance with longstanding V.A. policies and procedures. However, it proved to be an ongoing hostile environment for me, so I packed up and moved to Portland, Oregon, where I previously lived. Maybe it’s due to the larger Jewish community in Portland, but I have yet to experience overtly religious discrimination at the V.A. facility here.

After my ugly experiences with the Iowa City V.A. and my overwhelming positive experiences with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, I got involved; I began volunteering for the MRFF, primarily working on veterans’ issues. In time I was appointed the voluntary Veterans Coordinator, and in that capacity I have spoken and corresponded with numerous veterans who daily experience the same sort of religious predation and discrimination I experienced. I’ve had the good fortune to assist numerous veterans, but want to give you just a few examples of what I’ve encountered.

About a year and a half ago I assisted three veterans who were denied access to PTSD groups because their local V.A. facility’s mental health staff would only allow “born again Christians” or those willing to become “born again” into the groups. I’ve worked with veterans on a waiting list to get into drug and alcohol treatment facilities who were farmed out to overtly religious halfway houses where they were compelled to attend Fundamentalist Christian Bible Study Classes and prayer sessions with the threat that if they failed to comply their names would be removed from the waiting list to get into treatment facilities. I have worked with more veterans than I can count who have endured unwanted and predatory proselytizing at their local V.A. facilities. But the most prevalent problem I hear about is the prevalence of V.A. Medical Centers that persist in permanently decorating their chapels with uniquely Christian symbols such as crucifixes and Stations of the Cross; this is of course in direct violation of Veterans Administration policy, which requires that all chapels remain religion neutral except during religious services, thereby making the facilities accessible to veterans of all faiths and no faith. When the Department of Veterans Affairs has dared to intervene and order a local facility to remove or cover up permanent religious displays there has often been protests by local Fundamentalist Christian groups and even public threats by local elected officials.

While all of us will never agree on everything, I hope that most of us can at least agree that our veterans deserve better than they’re getting. Our veterans don’t deserve to endure religious predation, discrimination and marginalization when they attempt to access medical care at their local facilities, regardless of their religious affiliation or absence of religious affiliation. It’s the V.A.’s job to deliver medical care and other needed services to our veterans, not to use federal funds to try to convert them to one religion or another.

The Department of Veterans Affairs needs to do a better job of monitoring its facilities and they need to do a better job of creating and maintaining a mechanism for veterans to report complaints regarding incidents of religious predation, discrimination and marginalization. In my experience, and in the unfortunate experience of far too many of our veterans, so-called patient advocates, who are employed by and answer to local hospital administration, too often not only fail to respond to complaints regarding violations of the veterans’ religious rights, but are themselves actually complicit. Recognizing that no one wants to report such violations to the same staff who engage in them (reprisals are a constant factor), the least the V.A. could do is set up a national call center for reporting violations of veterans’ religious rights by V.A. staff and facilities. But of course that’s just a start. The V.A. needs national staff to routinely inspect local facilities to ensure their compliance with regulations that protect veterans from violations of their religious rights, violations that make it less likely they will actually access the medical care they so desperately need and deserve. Veterans have more than earned the right to be treated with this basic level of respect, don’t you think?